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Brown is getting his day in the sun

Britain's brainy and somber new prime minister waited 13 years in the shadow of Blair, his friend and rival.

June 27, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — He shows up for work in famously drab ties with his nails bitten to the quick. He hates networking, and didn't marry until he was 49. He's the glowering figure often seen harrumphing on the bench behind his preternaturally poised boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the House of Commons.

You might say he's the anti-Blair, in more ways than one.

The Shakespearean conflict that has been the brooding back story to Britain's leadership ends today when Gordon Brown, the brilliant and somber treasury chancellor who has stood in Blair's shadow for 13 years, becomes Britain's 52nd prime minister.

As Blair submits his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II and Brown makes the long journey from No. 11 Downing St. to No. 10, the two political leaders not only pass the torch of government, but conclude a dramatic saga of intense friendship and rancorous rivalry that has afflicted both men and transformed the politics and economy of modern Britain.

"They were kind of like a couple who've been married for a long time. They got on each other's nerves," said a former Cabinet official who, like many interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. "They were highly interdependent. You look at their skill sets, they were completely different, and also completely complementary."

Brown, 56, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, prizes prudence and duty in contrast to Blair's uncanny zeitgeist vision and engaging style. He partnered with Blair in fashioning the Labor Party's decisive return to power in 1997 -- and would have led the left-of-center party years ago had he not deferred to the more dynamic and electable Blair.

Promised the premiership after Blair had his turn, Brown has waited in growing frustration and resentment in recent years as his longtime friend found first one reason, then another, why it was not the right time to go.

The political marriage of two men seen as exceptional but antipodal political virtuosos paralyzed government when it was bad -- and it often was -- but its remarkable chemistry created the landmark reforms of New Labor and propelled Britain to an unmatched record of sustained economic growth.

"Gordon and Tony have had an intense relationship," said a former Blair aide. "Mainly intensely good, sometimes intensely bad."

Brown has run the treasury like a powerful fiefdom, giving himself final say on how much money ministers get in their budgets and often leaving Blair in the dark about the national budget's final tax and spending figures until the last moment.

This was, say those close to them, a result of the famous power-sharing deal the two men cut at a London restaurant in 1994, when Brown agreed not to run for the Labor Party leadership. What he wanted in exchange, according to various reports, was not only the next shot at the top slot -- who knew it would take 13 years? -- but control over the economy and domestic spending issues in the meantime.

"The degree of control he had was unprecedented," said Derek Scott, an advisor to former Chancellor Denis Healey who joined Blair's team as top economic advisor.

"Whole discussions of pensions, social security -- ministers would find the budgetary decisions affecting their own departments would be occasionally taken out of their hands," Scott said. "It was quite extraordinary. You had instances where ministers came to the view that it was more important to clear it with Gordon than clearing it with the prime minister."

'He thinks he's smarter'

Brown's reluctance to delegate is legendary and stems, many say, from his characteristic impatience.

"When you get to be prime minister, you can't do everything. Therefore, you've got to trust and empower your colleagues more," a former treasury official said. "But he thinks he's smarter than they are, and he works harder than they do."

Brown has always been intellectually intimidating. "He's blind in one eye, and he reads everything. It's really terrifying what he reads. Scary," said Irwin Stelzer, a conservative at the Washington-based Hudson Institute who has known Brown for years. The two often find themselves on opposite sides of a debate.

Brown, who began as a brash and bookish young Scottish socialist, stuck closer to Labor's traditional leftist ideals than Blair and never became the smooth politician that Blair is. He eschews white tie at his annual address to the captains of British industry at the Lord Mayor's ceremonial house, a habit a Times of London columnist recently called "simply bloody rude."

The floor of the study of his weekend home in Scotland is likely to be heaped chaotically with books; at European Council meetings, where networking is everything, Brown often arrives at the last minute, reorders the agenda so the items he's interested in happen first, and catches an early plane home.

His conversation starters with friends are simple: "What are you reading?" is usually the first. Then, "Have you heard any good jokes?"

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